Director Sebastián Lelio pays special attention to his titular character’s breathing during several sequences in his exquisite film A Fantastic Woman. Each time his protagonist, Marina, is under stress, either psychological or physical, Lelio drains everything out of the soundtrack and focuses on her slow, deliberate breaths. In the film, Marina does this to steady herself; it’s a way to regain her composure and sense of safety in traumatic situations. If you’re watching the film, it’s a way for Lelio to remind you that Marina is a human being. We all breathe, after all, and the film reminds us that we are all deserving of a basic level of respect and dignity. As obvious as that sentiment seems, Marina is confronted many times throughout A Fantastic Woman with people who aren’t willing to extend her that respect and dignity.
Marina is a transgender woman. That’s a person who is designated male at birth, but who doesn’t feel that designation reflects her true gender identity. Marina must navigate a world full of people who show her disgust and discrimination because of who she is. Lelio and the actress portraying Marina – Daniela Vega, in a breakout performance – collaborate to create a stunning portrait of a complex, luminous, truly fantastic woman.
The film begins with a birthday celebration. Marina’s romantic partner, Orlando, meets her at a restaurant where she is performing. She has a day job as a waitress, but she is pursuing a career as a singer. When she’s done, they have dinner, and Orlando surprises Marina by arranging for the waitstaff to bring out a cake and sing happy birthday to her. It’s the perfect romantic gesture. The couple heads back to their apartment. In the middle of the night, Orlando wakes feeling ill. Marina rushes him to the hospital, but he dies not long after they arrive. Now Marina must confront a family in which she’s never been welcome, while also trying to grieve the loss of her lover.
Without the presence of such an assured actress as Vega, who appears in almost every frame of A Fantastic Woman, the movie might not have been as successful or as moving as it is. Vega has an incredible depth to her performance as Marina. She taps into subtle nuances of grief, fear, anger, and more, which culminate to create a multi-layered character. She’s a magnetic performer.
There is also an added sense of authenticity to Marina, because Vega is herself a transgender woman. Lelio avoided the controversy stirred by films like The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club, which both featured non-transgender actors portraying transgender characters. The LGBTQ community is rightfully wary of Hollywood using these identities however they see fit, and Lelio should be praised for including an actual member of that community in his film.
Gender politics aside, A Fantastic Woman also deserves praise as a magnificent artistic achievement. Cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta’s photography is sumptuous and sublime. Lelio incorporates multiple moments of magical realism into his tale to give us a sense of Marina’s fantastic nature, and Echazarreta complements each one with gorgeous visuals. In one scene, Marina goes to a dance club as an escape from the crushing grief she’s enduring. The camera swoops up to the ceiling as Marina dances with other patrons of the club, all in identical shimmering jackets. All of a sudden, Marina herself swoops up into the air towards the camera and holds there, starring directly into the camera at us. Other more mundane settings, like the steam room of a spa, are equally captivating because of the care with which Echazarreta shoots them.
There is also plenty of ugliness in A Fantastic Woman. It all comes from Orlando’s surviving family – particularly his ex-wife – who go out of their way to let Marina know she is not welcome at the funeral. The experience of losing a loved one is traumatic enough, and Marina must handle that with the added indignity of being told she has no right to grieve. Her very existence is repugnant to these people, and they have no reservations in letting her know it.
That is, in fact, one of the most heartbreaking revelations the picture contains for people like me who benefit from the privilege of being cisgender, someone whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth. When closed-minded people consider someone to be “other,” they take that as a license to say whatever they want to that person. At one point, Orlando’s ex-wife tells Marina she is a perversion.
As dehumanizing as those experiences are, there are much worse concerns transgender people, and the LGBTQ community in general, must consider. The threat of physical violence that transgender people face is something A Fantastic Woman doesn’t ignore. One sequence involves Orlando’s son and his nephew briefly kidnapping and assaulting Marina. It is harrowing and stomach-churning. At the same time, Lelio is also interested in providing nuance. Not everyone in Orlando’s family is as bigoted as his ex-wife and son. Orlando’s brother is supportive of Marina, and he believes she has the right to say goodbye to her lover, and to be included in the funeral.
Life is hard. It’s certainly hard enough without being ridiculed and threatened just because you exist and don’t conform to what the majority of society deems as “normal.” The most uplifting thing about A Fantastic Woman is Marina’s determined resolve to rise above ignorant prejudice. She has a right to be messy, imperfect, unique, strong, and most importantly, she has a right to be herself. In the end, that’s the most radical – and the most fantastic – thing about her.
Why it got 4 stars:
- A Fantastic Woman passes the empathy test with flying colors. It gives the overwhelming majority of people a perspective they've never seen, or that they've probably even ever considered. The filmmakers take a lot of care to present Marina's story with compassion. It's also beautifully shot and acted.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I want to include some statistics I got from the organization GLAAD, because I think it's important to highlight what trans people around the world face every day: Transgender women of color – like both the character Marina, as well as the actress playing her – are the targets of high rates of assault and murder. 325 trans people, nearly all women of color, were reported murdered in 2017, which is an uptick of 18% since 2015. That's 325 people in one year, in a population estimated to be between 1-3% of the population.
- One aspect I didn't mention at all in the main review is how Marina is sexualized by almost everyone she comes across. Because of the circumstances of Orlando's death, a police investigation is opened. The detective conducting it is suspicious that Marina is a sex worker who might be involved in Orlando's death, instead of believing that she was his partner. This leads to a physical examination by a doctor who basically reduces Marina's existence to her genitals. It's a truly upsetting sequence.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- This was a press screening with only a few dozen people in attendance. It was quiet and somber throughout.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Alex Garland, the director of Ex Machina, my #2 film of 2015, has a new movie out. It's called Annihilation, and it stars Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. I am excite.